This man works on the world’s wildest ocean

"One year, I got so frightened I had to take some time off."
Ben Wallis, Antarctic expedition sailor © Ocean Expeditions
By Jo Stewart

There’s nothing ordinary about Ben Wallis’s job. Running sailing expeditions to Antarctica with Ocean Expeditions, Ben Wallis is an Australian mariner who lives and works on the edge for up to eight months of the year.

From helping film crews and documentarians create iconic series like Frozen Planet to transporting Red Bull ski teams to some of the most remote terrain in the world, and supporting scientific projects run by the Australian Antarctic Division, Ben Wallis has battled some of the roughest seas in the world all in the name of documentary filmmaking, scientific discovery and catching a glimpse at some of the rarest wildlife in the world.

We shoot the breeze with him to find out what it’s really like to work in the coldest, windiest, driest, most remote continent in the world:

So Ben, what do you do for a crust?
I run a company called Ocean Expeditions. We specialise in polar sailing and expedition support covering four main areas: ecotourism, science, adventure and commercial trips.

[Insert 'whale of a time'-related caption here] © Ocean Expeditions

What parts of the world do you work in?
We mostly work in Antarctica but also South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Falkland Islands, Patagonia and the Arctic.

How did you get into the business of polar sailing?
I was born into it. My father and I first sailed to Antarctica in the 90s and it was then that I was bitten by the polar bug. Antarctica got under my skin and as a fisherman’s son I have saltwater in my veins.

It became a place I really loved and was taken by. Antarctica is the place where I feel most comfortable in the world. I prefer to be in Antarctica as compared to where I was born or in my home on land in Bondi. Antarctica is a special, comfortable place for me. I’m lucky that my occupation allows me to keep returning year after year.

How long do you typically spend down there while on a trip?
The season lasts 6-8 months for us, and we do a few voyages within that time. A minimum voyage is around a month and the longest trip we’ve done is for five months.

"How was work today, love?" "Yeah...not bad" © Ocean Expeditions

Your job is a dream job for many. What are some of your favourite parts of your job?
There has to be something to blow your mind every day to put up with banging around in the Southern Ocean for a job, so that can be anything from an amazing interaction with a whale or it can be as simple as helping a documentarian get an important shot. Being involved in the making of Frozen Planet was a highlight. I grew up watching David Attenborough so to be involved in that was amazing. The scientific work that we’re supporting down there is also very rewarding.

You just mentioned that a part of your job is ‘banging around in the Southern Ocean’. This part of the world is known for whipping up some of the roughest seas in the world, have you ever had times where you’ve been frightened by the hostile environment you work in?
I think ‘hostile’ is an understatement. It’s the Drake Passage. It’s the tiny little gap where the whole of the Southern Ocean gets squeezed between the Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula and at times, it’s just horrendous. But I believe it’s a passage that needs to be crossed in order to earn your right to visit such an amazing place.

Yes, it’s scared the crap out of me at times. One year I got so frightened I took time off. On our last voyage, the side of our wheelhouse got dipped right into the water twice on the way home. That’s a substantial fright!

Yep - it's cold © Ocean Expeditions

That. Sounds. Terrifying.
Working at sea definitely changes your baseline of what a stressful situation is. I often joke when I’m at home that if we’re not on fire and we’re not sinking then we’re doing pretty well!

So many people have a romantic notion of sailing, what are some of the things that might surprise people about your job?
The biggest part of the job is maintenance. Keeping everything going from a port at the end of the world (in Ushuaia, Argentina) is difficult because there’s no services there. So essentially the repairs and maintenance must be done by our crew. Keeping the engines, pumps, navigation systems and communications systems going – it’s all up to me. Even the toilet, which gets blocked often. I can’t just pull into port and get help from tradespeople. There’s no one else to rely on.

Fixing a blocked toilet at sea doesn’t sound like fun. Do you ever get seasick?
I’m definitely not immune to it. I’d say that 90% of the time I’m at sea, I don’t feel 100%. You’re being rattled around inside a cage, your diet is off and you get dehydrated easily. If I’ve got my head down in the engine room trying to fix something and there’s diesel sloshing around, then I’ll feel sick, even after 20 years of doing it.

A birds-ice-view © Ocean Expeditions
Life's a beach © Ocean Expeditions

Does dying at sea ever cross your mind?
Not really. I definitely have had ‘oh wow’ moments during enormous swell. I might see a huge breaking wave coming and I’ll have to brace myself and grab onto anything I can find. Many people I take to Antarctica emerge from their cabins after crossing the Drake Passage and admit that they seriously thought they were going to die.

So is sailing your calling?
Most of the time I agree, but on the days where we’re getting clobbered by huge swell I can’t help but think that I would love an office job in a cubicle.

Well, I’m sure there are many people reading this who are stuck behind a desk who would love to trade places with you.

Depending on the day! Not while in the middle of a heavy Drake Passage crossing. But on the beautiful days I wouldn’t swap my job for anything in the world.

Icebergs or teeth? © Ocean Expeditions
Icebergs: larger than life © Ocean Expeditions
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